Hypnopompic Hallucinations

Dreams have been a strong source of curiosity for a very long time. People from ancient days, and on into the present, have tried to find special meaning in dreams. Some believe they are prophecies, or even messages from spirits. Most people have had some form of a bad dream, a nightmare, where they are being chased by something with evil intent, or witness a terrifying occurrence.

The nightmare may even reflect their real-life anxieties, but they always wake up and realize, “It was just a dream. Sometimes though, the distinction between awake and asleep gets blurred during the transition, and a person can experience a bizarre manifestation of his nightmares. There have been many accounts of people who have been visited by ghosts, spirits, aliens, and other sorts of mysterious visitors—or at least they believe so. There are simple explanations for these supernatural encounters, and they are called hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations.

In 1664, a Dutch physician named Isbrand Van Diemerbroeck published a collection of case histories, one of which was titled “Of the Night-Mare. The case describes a 50-year-old woman in generally good physical health who often believed that a devil would sit on her chest and hold her down as she was beginning to drift off to sleep. Sometimes, the devil was replaced by a giant dog, or a thief, weighing down on her and choking her, but when she would Billings 2 try to throw them off, she found that she could not move. This case is believed to be the earliest detailed account of hypnagogic hallucinations with sleep paralysis (Kompanje).

In an article discussing Van Diemerbroeck’s case, Dr. E. J. O. Kompanje describes hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations as “visual, tactile, auditory or other sensory events, usually brief but sometimes prolonged, that occur at the transition from wakefulness to sleep (hypnagogic) or from sleep to wakefulness (hypnopompic). ” These hallucinations are much more common than one would imagine. They come in a variety of forms, many of them somewhat unmemorable, such as hearing someone call your name, seeing colorful geometric shapes floating around, or feeling someone sleeping beside you who is not there.

A large majority of these are quickly forgotten and dismissed by the conscious mind upon waking. The hallucinations that stick with the affected individual are usually much more vivid, and can be bizarre or extremely disturbing. Hypnagogic hallucinations occur just as people are entering the light, first stage of sleep, N1. If awakened at this point, people will probably not believe that they were asleep (Ciccarelli and White). Because of this, the phantom hallucinations experienced will seem very real, and people could believe they were awake while they saw/heard/felt whatever it was.

Someone might have a hallucination of a family member that he knows to be dead standing in his room, along with equally strange and frightening noises, and he will be completely convinced that he was awake at the time. You can combine this experience with the inclination many people have to want to believe in some form of afterlife, and voila! —there is a ghost in the room. Billings 3 The other form of sleep hallucination, hypnopompic, happens while someone is in between REM sleep, and fully waking up.

REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is the near-waking stage where people have most of their vivid, detailed, and strange dreams. The body is unable to act upon these dreams, because the voluntary muscles are paralyzed during REM sleep. “This period of paralysis is a built-in protective measure to keep you from harming yourself. When you are paralyzed, you can’t thrash around or leap out of bed and run. Do you ever feel like you can’t escape during a dream? Well, the truth is, you can’t. You can breathe, and your heart is working, but you really can’t move,” observes Diana Walcutt, Ph.

D. This is called sleep paralysis, and it is commonly associated with both hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, but mostly hypnopompic. During a hypnopompic hallucination, a person might “awaken” in the middle of the night to find creatures in his room, standing over him or touching him, but he is unable to fight them off or run away; in fact, he can’t move at all. Many of these hallucinations cause considerable fear. Sometimes the fear is so strong that people believe they are going to die or are afraid to go to sleep again.

Sleep hallucinations can certainly cause a lot of confusion, because they are hard to distinguish from reality even if the content is bizarre and unrealistic. When people wake from a normal dream, or nightmare, they can generally recognize the fact that they were dreaming, but this is not the case for hallucinations. The American Sleep Association says, “Hallucinations occur in the state between waking and sleeping (the person is considered to be technically asleep during these hallucinations though), as opposed to dreams or lucid dreams, which occur while [fully] asleep.

This impression of full consciousness sometimes leads people to assign Billings 4 important meaning to their hallucinations, but really they are nothing more than weird regurgitations of the brain. People try to make logical sense of their experiences in the dream-like state, but that only leads to their own subjective interpretations of something that has little real significance. Despite the fact that they can be pretty terrifying, hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are no cause for concern. They seem to be very common.

Most of the general population is expected to experience a sleep hallucination sometime during their life. They are, however, much more common in people who already have some form of sleep or mental disorder. Individuals with narcolepsy, anxiety, depression, or bipolar affective disorder are twice as likely to experience these phenomena at least once weekly (Knott). They can also occur more often with people who are under a lot of mental stress, or use drugs (prescription drugs included) and alcohol. Treatment for sleep hallucinations is usually not necessary, but for extreme cases of them the treatment falls to the cause.

If excessive hallucinations are the result of narcolepsy, then the narcolepsy needs to be managed to reduce them. In the case of the woman from 1664, all her symptoms pointed to sleep hallucinations accompanied by sleep paralysis. She had strange visions as she fell asleep, and was somewhat aware of her surroundings, but was unable to move. Upon waking fully, the visions presented themselves to her as monsters sitting on her chest. Many researchers now believe that people’s similar experiences of ghostly visitations, alien abductions, and demon attacks can most easily be explained by sleep hallucinations.